These are not your plain-vanilla flavors of ice cream: Rose with Cinnamon-roasted Almonds. Golden Turmeric. Lemon Cardamom. Masala Chai. Turkish Coffee. But for the slightly adventurous Brooklynite looking for a cool treat, they’ve proven to be very tempting. Malai Ice Cream, the creation of entrepreneur Pooja Bavishi, has landed its spiced flavors on “best ice cream” lists since its launch in 2015.
Last week, the cult favorite finally opened its first brick-and-mortar location at Gotham Market at The Ashland in Fort Greene. The word finally is used intentionally: those covetable pints and scoops were lately only available at Smorgasburg or online. During Malai’s grand-opening event, people flocked to the free scoops of Fig on Fig, a brand-new flavor. “Gotham asked me to create a flavor for opening day, and we wanted to create a very seasonal flavor,” said Bavishi. “Fig ice cream is extremely common in India. They mix dried figs into an ice cream base,” she continued, “but I wanted that freshness there, so we have a fig-leaf based ice cream with fig jam in there.”
Fig on Fig is a perfect example of how Bavishi, 33, likes to approach the art of making ice cream: mixing ideas that draw on her Indian heritage with new twists. While such flavors as Orange Fennel or Star Anise might taste like a 100% Indian product to the average customer, Bavishi is not simply recreating kulfi, the traditional, lightly churned Indian ice cream. “I am trying to build on flavors that have never been in ice cream, and taking from what I know and I grew up with, South Asian spices.” In India, she said, “You would find a rose ice cream, but it won’t be a Rose with Cinnamon Roasted Almonds,” she explained. In general, ice cream is “a family-oriented dessert, as it should be. I just wanted to elevate it a little and I wanted the spices really to shine through.”
Growing up in North Carolina, Bavishi remembers first dreaming about a career in confections after watching a TV show about making desserts at the age of 10. The dream was deferred a bit while she earned a masters degree at the London School of Economics. Awhile later, she found herself at the crossroads in her career as a urban planner. “My parents said ‘Now is the time you should start a dessert business,’” Bavishi recalled.
Yet she didn’t plunge impulsively into the new business. First she picked up an MBA at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “I did not feel comfortable starting my own business without some knowledge base,” she said. In launching Malai, Bavishi used some of the methodological tools she had picked up in business school, which included asking good questions, consulting the experts, and assembling a focus group.
That last element, however, was not always foolproof. She almost did not launch the flavor that would end up being the most popular one, the aforementioned Rose with Cinnamon-roasted Almonds, which proved controversial at first. “Rose was almost polarizing. We’ve tweaked the recipe so much since then,” Bavishi said. “Rose something that’s so familiar to me. It does not taste floral at all to me; it’s a very ingrained flavor as dessert. Maybe it’s not familiar to other people.” After all the second-guessing and tweaking, the rose flavor was a hit from the first day. Out of the 18 flavors in Malai’s roster, it is the only permanent one, showing up at every event where Mailai takes part.
Malai, which according to the company means “cream of the crop” in a North Indian language, is a product of the diversity-driven Brooklyn startup culture. The brand’s pop-up space at Gotham Market came as a “serendipitous offer,” says Bavishi, to join several other purveyors for four-month stints as a part of the neighborhood incubation program featuring Brooklyn-based businesses.
Bavishi makes all her ice cream at FoodWorks, the food-focused coworking space that occupies the old Pfizer building at 630 Flushing Ave. “It’s a true incubator,” Bavishi said enthusiastically, offering office space, a private kitchen, conference rooms, storage, and mentoring. “You can book time with experts in the right fields. They would give you their time and their contacts, ideas, strategies and they follow up with you,” she said. She brought this collaborative approach to the Gotham venture too: the four flavors of waffle cones—five spices, cinnamon, coconut and blue corn—are made by Konery, another food business operating at FoodWorks.
Besides her mentors and collaborators, Bavishi finds Brooklynites to be the best focus group anyone could ask for. “They are very open-minded; it’s a very adventurous crowd. They are always willing to try new flavors, they are very generous with their feedback.” At Gotham, the five available flavors will rotate weekly (all but rose, that is), so customers will be able to sample all 18 of them.